– Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the opposite of that that is really life.
— What? Says Alf.
— Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.
Thanks to a text from my friend David, I was reminded that today is Bloomsday- the day when obsessed Joyceans across the globe undertake their own ‘epic’ (read: drunken) journeys in the manner of Ulysses‘ hero, Leopold Bloom, a man who sells newspapers and whose wife cheats on him. The novel follows one day of Leopold’s life and parallels the events of Homer’s Odyssey (Bloom’s character corresponds with Odysseus). An ordinary man is set against the backdrop of heroic undertakings, and the book begs the question, What is a modern hero? Do we still search for mythic meaning in modern life, and how do we find it? Others interpret Bloom’s son, Stephen Dedalus, as the hero; he seeks a father, whether literal or spiritual, much like a hero pursues a fateful journey in classic epics. Though the novel follows the structure of an epic, its use of language has no precedent.
Ulysses is an attack on the English language and poetic conventions more generally. All novels must in some degree destroy language by inventing new techniques for expression, if their authors seek to be influential. The true brilliance of the novel lies not in its influence in the literary world, however, but in Joyce’s ability to convey the complexities of one man, a modern hero, an ordinary man, through the invention of a new kind of writing. Joyce avoids formal punctuation and embraces the stream of consciousness technique, and he uses language to portray both the beautifully sensuous and corporeal experiences of his characters- topics rarely addressed in English literature prior to Joyce. Though Joyce rebelled against the conventions of English language, it doesn’t follow that he would have supported the Irish literary revival- a movement often closely identified with the popularity of Bloomsday- of his predecessors.
Reclaiming one’s native language is an important undertaking in regaining national identity after colonization but not at the expense of progress, and I think Joyce would’ve deemed the movement inauthentic (in some respects it devalues the present moment) and irritatingly sentimental. In contrast to Yeats’ love for Ireland, Joyce wrote in a letter to Grant Richards that Dublin represented to him “the centre of paralysis.” And the characters in Joyce’s Dubliners embody this sentiment; they are alienated, stagnant, and usually unable to better their circumstances.
It seems to me that Joyce did not celebrate Ireland but repudiate it, which makes the celebration of Bloomsday and its inevitable connection to Irish culture all the more ironic. Charles Mudede writes in a recent Stranger article, “For Joyce, all that was left for the Irish was English, the stranger’s words, and it is this that must be destroyed, not for the purpose of returning to the past, but to create a space for the emergence of something new.” I suspect Joyce might say, “Bah!” to all the silly nostalgia and romanticism surrounding today, but I’ll probably still have a drink with friends this evening. I was named after Molly Bloom, and I seem to have taken after her for better or worse. xo-m